Missouri lawmakers tighten reins on state’s sunshine law

MISSOURI — Gov. Bob Holden signed legislation June 7 strengthening the Missouri Sunshine Law, which included clarifying provisions that require compliance by University of Missouri officials.

The new provisions in the law raise the fines for open-meetings and open-records violations, set a uniform price for reproductions of records, update the law to include the Internet and other new electronic means of communication and explicitly list the University of Missouri Board of Curators as a governmental body subject to the law. It goes into effect Aug. 28.

Under the old provisions, the maximum fine for all violations was $500. The new law creates a two-tiered fine classification, with fines for a “knowing violation” reaching $1,000 and fines for a “purposeful violation” of up to $5,000, said Charles Davis, director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri. He added that the difference between the two distinctions is intent.

“If there is evidence that they knew bloody well that it was a violation and they conspired to violate it anyway, then it might get up to that purposeful level,” Davis said. “But it will be incredibly hard to meet that higher standard.”

The 10 cent per photocopy for records required by the law is aimed to keep agencies from charging exorbitant prices for records.

“In the past they have been all over the place,” said attorney and Missouri Sunshine Law expert Jean Maneke.

The portion of the law declaring the University of Missouri Board of Curators a public governmental body is expected to end a nearly two-decade-long debate over the board’s sunshine compliance.

In the past, a judge declared that the board was not explicitly covered by the Missouri Sunshine Law, a ruling that “infuriated the Legislature,” Davis said. The Legislature responded by passing numerous laws to make the board comply with sunshine laws, but the board still said the open-records and open-meetings laws did not cover them. Davis said he thinks the new provision will force the board into compliance.

Davis cited the financial and oversight duties of public university boards that make them “very, very clearly public bodies.”

“The way in which universities spend money, give out money, maintain their classes, treat their athletes are all things of critical importance to the public at-large,” Davis said. “I don’t know of any other states where [the public body status of a university board] is even contestable.”

He added that he hopes the law will end such “clear violations” of sunshine laws.

Maneke said large bodies tend to know the Missouri Sunshine Law, but smaller government bodies often don’t make an effort to learn the laws.

“I hope it will cause people to believe they should take the law more seriously,” she said.